Big Games and Hipsters

Here’s a copy of the paper I presented at ISEA in Istanbul. Presentation below.

Pervasive and street gamers are compared and contrasted with the infamous subculture known as hipsters, showing that although they are quite different social groups their aesthetics operate in similar ways. Specific attention is given to the emergent, socially relative nature of these aesthetics and the operation of ‘cool’ cultural capital. These findings are based on ethnographic field work carried out in 2010 at the Come Out and Play festival.


A Machine To See With – A Very Liminal Experience

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read any further if you want to experience A Machine To See With, especially at the Brighton Digital Festival this September. Which of course you will be doing if you can.

A Machine To See With is an incredibly liminal experience and uses liminal symbolism and evokes communitas in a variety of manners. I believe that it is the manipulation of these which gives this work its affect and power.

From the very first instance you, as a participant, are directed to step out of the everyday and perform a very transgressive act, robbing a bank. You are told to ignore any other interruptions for the duration, you aren’t you anymore you are this new, different person living on the edge. Instantly you feel like you have crossed a threshold and you aren’t like everyone else, you are following a script, concentrating on fleeting instructions that wont be repeated and scanning the crowd sticking out. Feeling conspicuous hustling along clasping a mobile to your head.

The script purposefully evokes the sense of being in a film through describing the locations of cameras, the types of shot you might be in and the very fact that your eyes are a machine to see with. The participant is put in a film set as they describe the buildings around as just flats and the people as extras. You are put beyond just being inside a story to actually being in the filming of a film. The fiction of the robbery is mixed with the very clear reality around you. to It feels very much like being in a deconstructed film. The audio is somewhat like listening to a film script, complete with location details and scene direction whilst at the same time your eyes are the camera picking up the shots. When the script describes something and then you see it there is a frission; a subjunctive pleasure when the world of make-believe bank robbers IS the world around you.

The locations themselves are wonderfully liminal. Early on you enter a toilet cubicle to reflect. Public toilets have a great sense of taboo about them, they are places to excrete and leave, or hang around for illicit sex. They are not comfortable places to loiter. Even being asked to visit a toilet in a pub without asking is crossing a line. Using the top floor of the car park tower is brilliant. It is the meeting place between the ground and the air, another sky pier in Brighton. When I did the piece it was empty and very cinematic, another break from the everyday streets. It was an ascent into the heavens and standing on the edge of the sky. Although I didn’t get to enter the car myself (I was testing), the symbolism of entering a strange, parked car is very much breaking a social law, another transgressive act. One that harks back to Blast Theory’s use of the limousine in Uncle Roy. They use other highly symbolic urban geography, such as getting you to navigate back alleyways, stand on the edge of the car park, circumnavigate the periphery of the bank and just before entering the bank the lead stands on the edge of the pavement getting ready.

Your partner, and the pairing of strangers is very, very important. The two of you shouldn’t know each other, but you meet up to rob a bank. You are drawn together in a complicit, transgressive act. There is a sense of communitas, a breaking down of the regular rules of society, you are both here to commit a crime. In the performance you are meeting a stranger, you have no idea who they are, what their status is, but now you are both to be criminals, outsiders, the archetype of crime film bank robbers. You are playing out a modern myth cycle, that of the heist, the crime movie. In the same way that ancient rituals would often be accompanied by recitals or performances of myths, so in this you hear and enact a contemporary mythic journey.

The experience is totally entrancing. Although I was only taking part in tests and not the full performance I felt in a very heightened and agitated state. Very much on the edge. The tests we were doing are there to eliminate disjunctions and tweak the subjunctive nature of the piece to help it create an ‘as if’ world. The pleasure in hearing this piece as if you are in a script or the movie itself is very intense and enjoyable. The sense of being outside the everyday world and different from all the “extras” around you is palpable and fascinating. But I think best of all is the build up to the final crossing of the line. The whole piece is a 45 minute build up to the final, climactic entry to the bank. It is all exceedingly well choreographed and my heart was thumping at the time I approached the bank even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, that I wouldn’t be doing it, and that I would be told to run before entering the bank. The climax of A Machine to See With is all about leading you to the edge and then yanking you back. It is a cliffhanger in a very real sense.

The final scene is also very rich, but I don’t want to go into detail here. But it again brings back Blast Theory’s fascination with strangers and again evokes the feeling of communitas and tries to get at authentic human relations. The piece ends rather abruptly in a place you really didn’t expect to be and in a state of mind you really also didn’t expect to be in.

A bit more on Uncle Roy All Around You

Some more about Uncle Roy All Around You whilst talking to Ju.

Between CYSMN and Uncle Roy they did a research residency at Banff and produced a research project called Bystander.

  • This was to investigate what people would do in the street. Not what spectacular, or outlandish things, but how would and could they interact with other players or other people outside the piece/game. [again it is interesting to explore the idea that a set of seemingly mundane actions can fit together to form a situation that is far from mundane]
  • It wasn’t highly technical and used what they called paper trails, what seem like a form of paper prototyping for this experience. They ended up with cards and decks that could be shuffled.
  • They wanted to explore what it felt to be taking part or not. What is that line you cross when you take part? What does it feel like to cross that line? [liminal pay dirt for me]
Uncle Roy came about through a desire to put the players in the street, and in that was a natural progression from CYSMN.
  • It was about absence and presence
  • A quest to find a person who wasn’t going to be there
  • About trying to get the virtual and the real to work together [although it would really seem about getting online players to work with physical players]
  • Cinematic experience of cities
  • The feeling of success and failure – game-like reward systems
  • “Turning corners, moving you from one thing to the next.” [working with similar spatial metaphors to the concept of the liminal]
  • “You think you know where you are going but the carpet can be whipped out.”
  • “You agree to enter, but don’t know where you are going.”
  • How can people enjoy something that is not there
  • People probably felt confused or frustrated [i think this is probably a common response to liminal activities. Participants are presented with structures that are outside the ordinary and a lack of control.]
  • I asked what was the best bit – The contract at the end [where a player would commit to another player, for a year, to “be there” in a crisis]
    • the potential for real change and real world effect [this is the same real world change that occurs through the experience of liminal states, which are educational, reflective and transitional all at once]
    • But it needs a framework to lead up to it, the contract would not work without the rest of the experience [the anti-structure]
  • But also the limousine seems to be a favourite bit for all the artists
    • A fantasy vehicle, part of a collective imaginary [in tribal rituals myths are recited at the same time as the activities and he relationships between the symbols in both resonate]
    •  But slightly transgressive [as the actions in ritual often are taboo activities, ritual is a place to explore and also feel repulsed by the taboo]
    • A symbol of the high life [but the ford granada they use is a richer symbol than that, a reference to the past, a dilapidated symbol of previous wealth, a heavy touch of kitchiness. A white one, the colour of rebirth for neophytes and a vehicle back to the real world.]
We ended with a discussion on the idea of challenge which I found very fascinating. Opening up the space between competition, collaboration and challenge. Blast Theory’s goal is to challenge on a spiritual, mental and physical level and to ask questions [challenge] that other people would like to know the answers to. The word challenge has a richer, and more effective set of connotations for games than competition and when designing for challenge gives a very different set of possibilities that can play into the mental, spiritual and physical.

Ju Row Farr on Can You See Me Now?

Can You See Me Now? gets a lot of coverage and in the literature comes across as a, if not the, seminal pervasive game. It is played in the city, purposely mixes realities and uses devices with GPS technology, ticking all the boxes for this type of gameplay. I’m only going to pull out some of my relevant notes as it is covered very well in many academic papers and books.

Can You See Me Now? is a game that happens simultaneously online and on the streets. Players from anywhere in the world can play online in a virtual city against members of Blast Theory. Tracked by satellites, Blast Theory’s runners appear online next to your player on a map of the city. On the streets, handheld computers showing the positions of online players guide the runners in tracking you down.

  • This is their gamiest piece [by far]
  • It was a chase game and they understood and wanted to bring the affective elements from chasing into this mixed reality technical system, such as the feeling of being shouted at, people breathing down your neck, the sound of running footsteps behind you, hiding and jumping out. [Between Ritual Process (1969) and Drama, Fields Metaphors (1974), it seems that Turner has started to pick up an understanding of the affect of ritual, though doesn’t develop it]
  • This is important as how do you keep someone engaged in the 3D world without some sort of contact with the physical players. How do you get someone involved in the virtual world
  • When designing the virtual world they ask themselves is this world in the past, the present or the future. This decision is important to how the piece functions. For example this ties in with the piece asking you for the name of someone who you haven’t seen for a while.
  • The players (who are all in the virtual world) would have to work together to catch the runners.
  • Used Walkie-Talkies for the specific aesthetic that they bring and that they are seemingly lo-tech solution [Same reason I used them for RoboRacers, they have a lovely textural quality about them]
  • Purposefully a non-naturalistic 3D world. Very obviously alternate. Very obviously fictional, not an attempt at a copy of the real world.
  • Much emergent behaviour occurred in the 3D world, peple did things that were unexpected. Patterns emerged that were different from offline. Some people used it like a chat room, there were fans/stalkers/followers who appeared in each playing.
  • The avatars in the 3D world are all identical, though one type for runners and one type for players. [stripping of identity in liminal spaces]
  • The runners ended up in what is basically a paramilitary look. They needed them to feel like a team, needed a uniform. No logos. To feel purposeful and competent needed to be dressed purposeful and confident. [Again a removal/replacement of identity. Uniforms like this put the individual in a liminal space. It is interesting that they were black as this also symbolises death, a state in which ritual participants are often identified as]
  • The runners had all their garb laid out on tables gridded with tape and would be dressed and geared up before going out into the streets to run. [the description of this is so reminiscent of ritual preparation and formalised actions in taking on the symbols of the ritual, the ritual garb.]
  • The runners became part of a group, looking out for each other. The situations were on busy streets, dangerous, tiring, stressful. [communitas and the situations that promote communitas]
  • In different countries the reactions to the runners was very different. In Japan they gathered followings who would run around with them. [although the garb looks somewhat scary in western culture, maybe it has different connotations in the east]
  • Want the players to be angry and playful at the same time.

Again throughout I heard very detailed descriptions of the procedures of the piece from end to end. The level of recollection of the details from work nearly a decade old is quite surprising and I believe shows the level of care paid to the little elements and how these contribute to the work.

Can You See Me Now? Tokyo from Blast Theory on Vimeo.


Ju Row Farr on Desert Rain

There is a great quote from the very end of this Desert Rain documentary video. I’m not sure whether it is a piece of content from the installation, or a vox pop from one of the players. Still I feel that this sums up both the liminality of the installation itself and the liminality of both war itself and Baudrillard’s hyperreal war. (UPDATE: It was Glenn, a british soldier in Iraq)

You’ve seen something you never imagined you were going to see. Then you’ve got to go back to the real world. Or, I might put that the other way around.

Desert Rain from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

These are the rough notes from my discussion with Ju Row Farr about their piece Desert Rain. Again my observations in green.

  • Established an ongoing relationship with the MRL/Nottingham U (if Kidnap established a new relationship with media and audiences then this established a new use of technology)
  • Came from work on the Gulf War. Baudrilliard and his ideas of the virtual and the hyperreal. (There is a difference in the way hyperreality and liminality are set forth. Hyperreality is almost like liminality expanding to take up everything and remove the seams, a liminal experience where the threshold has disappeared)
  • It mixed the fictional/factual/imaginary/real.
  • Tried to get people proximal to the gulf war, emotively and intellectually, but through physical activity (the physical metaphor mimics the notion of the threshold, or the centre/periphery concept)
  • Asked to do things you’ve never done before, but made up of actions that are fairly mundane
  • Desert Rain was much more of a game, or influenced by games, in the very least because of the use of the virtual world technology
  • Participants were physically changed going into the installation, handed over their own coats and donned identical raincoats (elements of separation stage of ritual)
  • We talked about gateways, and that each section of Desert Rain was a successive gateway. Although much focus has been put on the game bit, that was only one part of the experience. (the language of gateways. it also feels very much like the procedures of ritual)
  • They wanted an afterglow or rumour to come away afterwards. They slipped a small box of desert sand into people’s pockets to take away. (this was one of the nicest examples of elements of transition that I think abound in their work. the very nature of ritual is such that you are intended to take back something from the experience into the so called real world, that it is a state change)
  • Desert Rain required collaboration to “succeed”
  • You could really lose yourself in the moment and in the game, lost in the fiction paralleling being lost in the war.
  • A lot in this was about crossing lines, social lines and moving from a position of the familiar to the unfamiliar.
  • “to connect people” (communitas)
  • “to punch through” (liminal language)
  • On process – “get the hors d’oeuvre right and the main meal will taste right” (a nice reflection on the procedures and the importance of the separation phase)
  • “Crossing thresholds gives a buzz”
  • Mysteries in the ways people interact (reflecting I think on the difference between societas and communitas, the tensions between structured, hierarchical, role-typed social interaction and the homogenous, direct, authentic types of social interaction. Both are mysterious and the transitions between them are mysterious.)
  • The end, the psychological debrief gives a symmetry to the work, an in and an out. (repeatedly I do find a care paid to the way the experience ends and the integration processes is a core part of the whole installation)
  • They want the participants to feel a need to talk about it afterwards, and they give them the chance through things like interviews and questionnaires. (This all relates to the process of integration at the end of the ritual, where the things you have learnt are reflected upon and massaged back into the structures of the everyday)

Ju Row Farr on Kidnap

Ju Row Farr is one of the full time, founding artists of Blast Theory. As with the others I’ve sat down and discussed their work with and although I’ve tried to steer things always towards thinking through liminality I’ve just generally let the conversation take its own course. Here I’m trying to present some of the elements of ritual process that I’ve dragged out.

After talking to all three artists they all agree that Kidnap and Desert Rain were Blast Theory’s two game changing works. These two developed their understanding of the “medium” they are working within, radically altered their relation to performance and the audience and finally altered their use of media and technology. These two set them on the path they are on today.

Kidnap from Blast Theory on Vimeo.


  • The media campaign was a vitally important piece of the work
  • It was participatory and interactive in a very different way – through media campaign, web cams, the competition, the hostages (as some of their future work it starts to operate in many different space simultaneously, it is fiction, fact, physicality, virtual, it is truly a liminal work. The use of the internet helps to increase this liminality)
  • It was online, but highly physical
  • Through the production they didn’t have all the answers, many aspects emerged. They went into it not really knowing how it would end up or what the work would be like. (it feels like a personal journey or pilgrimage for the artists through the work)
  • The fiction of the kidnapping was important (the pretending, or suspension of disbelief for all participants, the subjunctive nature of the event)
  • As much as the kidnapping was vital to keeping the fiction (the physicality and the fiction are interlinked and mutually dependent for the liminal state)
  • Through and after this the artists became more remove as performers.
  • Blast Theory themselves were kidnapped in that they weren’t quite aware of how much they would have to put into the kidnap period. They were hostage to the kidnapees. (this is interesting in that it seems that maybe the liminality of the participants is reflected back on the artists, they are in the same liminal state as they are also doing something beyond the ordinary and on the edge. Even with permission this is a very transgressive act, especially in the effort they had to go to get Russell Ward)
  • A more sophisticated idea of the audience developed through this work, the audience was invisible and reached through all the various media they had used in the campaign, the competition and the webcam broadcast. (an invisible audience, ghosts, or spirits, watching through web cams is a lovely liminal metaphor)
  • Playing with the audience (I want to say that play is liminal, but so much of the reading I’ve done paints liminal in a serious and uncomfortable light. However play is such a polysemous word that it fits in nicely to the polysemous nature of ritual symbolic systems)

The big question after Kidnap is what do you do next? How do you top that? It is a piece that can only be done once, and where do you go after that. The answer is to do something radically different, which leads to Desert Rain.


Blast Theory, Technology and Process

Originally I had thought I was coming here to fill in a technical piece of my PhD puzzle, how Blast Theory achieve their award winning experiences through technology. However the lasting impression I get is not that this is achieved the use of technology, but instead that they do this through detailed production processes and a real attention and absolute care paid to the nuts and bolts of the experience.

Rather than being experts in whizzy technology (though they do have a deep understanding of how to use it) their skills like in the planning of the process of experiences. It is fascinating to hear all the three artists discuss the intricate, step by step details of the various works (often dating back 10 years) and it is very telling that they all remember the step by step details with high degree. To achieve this sort of recall points to them having spent a lot of time finessing these processes. This goes all the way back to kidnap, and for example getting entry forms just right.

Most of the attention Blast Theory gets for their work is focussed on the glitzy main event, the GPS game, virtual world, or the technology. However it is the attention that they pay to how a participant enters and leaves that experience that really distinguishes their pieces. And it is here that they show that they can achieve liminal experiences by ushering people carefully across the threshold and into their works. The beginnings and ends, which usually have nothing to do with high tech, are the mechanisms that assist this liminality.

Another interesting point about their processes is that although they say they “want to make you do things you’ve never done before” they are not trying to make you do actions you haven’t tried before. The things they want to get you to do are made up of fairly mundane, everyday physical actions, and these, pieced together and executed in a different context are what bring about the experiences. Other liminal experiences also have this same relationship: pilgrimages are just extended commuting; rituals involve lots of small, easily repeatable symbolic actions; festivals often involve simple things such as processions, or easily replicable dances. The individual actions can be mundane, but take on different symbolic meaning in the context of the participant’s liminal state.

Victor Turner’s description of the Isoma ritual that he writes about in The Ritual Process feels very similar. The whole ritual is complex, and the doctors involved are the only ones that appreciate the whole, but the other participants take part by digging holes, slaughtering chickens or singing simple songs.

Having just read another review of the – i’m still gutted I didn’t go this year – game 2.8 hours later, it is interesting to see the reviewer describe some of the same carefully considered details emerging to build that liminal game space.

Momus, Pervasive Gaming, Art and Commerce

Only today do I come across an excellent post from the playful, weird, sino-celtic musician-cum-artist Momus. Seems he was invited to Hide and Seek in 2008 and did some digging around Pervasive Games. It’s a great post and I’m both happy and annoyed as he has a few conclusions that are strikingly similar to my PhD work. It is great to see someone who is critical, and an outsider to the scene, doing some research about the subject and forming some interesting conclusions. He hits on the some of the exclusivity I’ve witnessed and coincidentally mentions hipsters. Hipsters and exclusivity seem always go together somehow. He wants in, but also out… and ultimately, from what I know, he was out.

This unethical exclusion, this flagrant rudeness, is something Charlie Booker and Chris Morris rammed home time after time in Nathan Barley, the story of an infuriatingly ludic prankster / media node who constantly flaunts his freedom and disinhibition in front of unfree and inhibited people.


What happens when fun and games become values you can’t question? […] Fun and games, at that point, become orb and sceptre, ball and chains. Liberation, at that point, becomes difficulty and differential calculus. It becomes emotion, idealism, seriousness, quietness, dignity.

Also today I was talking to a PR person about how to sell pervasive gaming to big brands and extend audiences. Marketing departments, quite understandable, don’t get pervasive games… I don’t think I do yet either.

One thing I’ve found it really fascinating from my research is that practitioners around pervasive gaming consider themselves to largely be designers. Those working professionally are in what look like small design companies. They fit into that field and market and are attempting to situated themselves commercially as such.

There are interesting tensions and orbits between whether the practice of pervasive gaming is art or design. Some of the most successful companies working in this field certainly take money from both the art and design worlds and are constantly recontextualising themselves to appear as one or the other to the commissioners that provide money to each. Not that I consider these to be two clear cut categories by any stretch, but there is a lot of chasing back and forth between these two checkpoints.

The practice of design, and situating this form of gaming alongside brands, is one which doesn’t naturally allow for the sorts of critical engagements that Momus raises as problems he saw in pervasive urban gaming. In fact brands want differentiation and distinction as part of their message and it is interesting to see that play out. Not that art is entirely innocent either, in that work made largely for the gallery context is already exclusive by its nature. Can you ever win?

Nick Tandavanitj on Uncle Roy

More rough notes from another conversation with Nick Tandavantij, this time about Uncle Roy All Around You, a collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab and part of the Equator project.

Although it seems trivial to say, but one of the things that has struck me from various discussions was that the character of Uncle Roy was very important. A lot of effort went into creating him as a truly believable character with a rich emotional backstory. Although maybe the details are not there the feel of him as a person has been well worked through. He was like a remote family member, someone who told jokes that weren’t funny, good hearted, reliable. He says in the dialogue that he is not connected to people, that he misses that feeling of connection. He talks about strangers and walking past strangers on the street. He wants to make a connection, but can’t. He wants to help others make that connection, even if they can’t. (Uncle Roy may or may not be dead, he is a liminal character in the game, riding the players like a Loa. Instructing and guiding the player, talking to them from the telemediated lands of the possibly dead.)

  • An experiment with the physical and the real (leading on from Can You See Me Now, this has players/audience in both online and physical roles.)
  • At the front desk the players are given the task of finding Uncle Roy
  • Used GSM modems on PDAs
  • Performer at front desk sets the challenge and takes all the players personal effects, keys, wallet, phone, etc. For security and also removes identity. (this is a very ritualistic process, removing symbols of identity is a classic entry point into liminal spaces)
  • No GPS, all self reported locations on maps.
  • Uncle Roy’s clues are ambiguous to begin with but become clearer the longer you stay in one spot. Deliberately unclear, but not misleading. (rich, deep symbolic interpretation is part of the ritual structure. the meanings are inexact, but interpretable.)
  • Scripted interactions from performers to help debug and error catch. Up to 8 “debugging” performers available and certainly 4 at any one time.
  • The physical bit was ticketed, with up to 20 people per hour. Physical players took about 45 mins to an hour to play. There were bottlenecks in the phonebox and Uncle Roy’s office.
  • The online bit was available in the gallery and online, with many more online players than physical.
  • The online players could find Uncle Roy’s office much easier than the physical players.
  • At the end the players are invited to make a commitment. Would you be there in case of an emergency. Most physical players made commitment, not many online players did. (220 physical players and 443 online players made commitments, so not all matches could be between physical and online)
  • “Somewhere in the game there is a stranger who is also answering these questions. Are you willing to make a commitment to that person that you will be available for them if they have a crisis? The commitment will last for 12 months and, in return, they will commit to you for the same period.”
  • The project would extend beyond the event and somehow fit back into their lives. Something would last. (My take is that this commitment is part of that sense of communitas, that could be taken back into everyday life. Something that allows the spontaneous communitas to last beyond the experience.)
  • A lot of the work was set up theatrically, as an obvious contrivance. The players could walk behind the ‘set’ of Uncle Roy’s office built inside another office (most specifically the ICA version). (Many rituals seem like obvious contrivances, not trying to hide the fact that they are sets. They are not seamless, immersive experiences, they are liminal experiences and the fact of that blends the real, fictional and imaginary.)
  • The office was set up like a place for Uncle Roy to watch or observe, which was also what was obviously happening to the physical players, who were being streamed to online players. (the place feels like it was a location for vigil, a place to go away and reflect on one’s relationship to society)
  • A lot of attention went into constructing Uncle Roy’s office as an installation piece. More care and attention went into it than if it was merely a checkpoint. Uncle Roy’s office was also streamed live to the online players.
  • “navigating the city by a different set of rules”
  • “we wanted it to be like a game” (it is like a game, but also appears to have some very obvious departures)
  • “an area of uncertainty”
  • Uses a white Ford Grenada limo at the end. (This is very symbolic of the high and players getting in are both taking an ironic form of luxury transport, but also doing something transgressive by getting into a stranger’s car. It is a white limo which symbolises purity, maybe showing that the player has been through this journey and comes back purified somehow.)

Whilst exploring the connection between using 3D virtual worlds and reality they talked a lot about B-movies and made a video mood board as part of the production process. This had things like the body snatchers, ghosts and the lost highway in it. It was called the spooky video montage. This feeling of spookiness and uncertainty was what they wanted to recreate in Uncle Roy. People should be a little scared of the virtual (and the liminal).

Uncle Roy All Around You from Blast Theory on Vimeo.